As you can read in today’s New York Times, fascination with a “mythical” creature is the latest internet meme to go mainstream in China. That creature? The Grass Mud Horse.
Ostensibly, the Grass Mud Horse is an alpaca-like creature that lives in the Ma Le Desert and fights River Crabs. In actuality, though, the horse’s name is a pun for a vulgar Chinese curse, and symbol of the difficulty Chinese netizens can create for the PRCs internet censors.
Yes, we’re aware that we’re late to this party. However, we bring you something that some other websites won’t: a willingness to publish vulgar curse words (in English, anyway) so as to fully explain the puns.
Perhaps among the most popular “Grass Mud Horse” internet attractions is the tongue-in-cheek children’s’ song created for it, “Song of the Grass Mud Horse”. China Digital Times has translated it already, but we’ve translated it more vulgarly! For you, the reader!
[Disclaimer: This entry contains some very vulgar words in English, and if you were to do the translation you could learn some pretty vulgar Chinese words too. If that’s the sort of thing you’re offended by, or that could get you in trouble at work, don’t read further]
In the vast and desolate beauty of the Ma Le Desert (1),
There is a group of Grass Mud Horses (2),
They are lively and intelligent,
They are mischievous and agile,
They live freely and easily in the Grass Mud Horse Desert (3)
Their indomitable courageousness conquers the difficult environment,
Oh, lying down (4) Grass Mud Horse,
Oh, running wild (5) Grass Mud Horse,
To keep their grasslands (6) from being eaten off, they defeated the River Crabs (7),
After this, River Crabs disappeared from the Grass Mud Horse Desert
(1) Sounds like “your mother’s cunt”
(2) Sounds like “Fuck your mother”
(3) Sounds like “Fuck your mother’s cunt”
(4) Sounds like “Fuck!”
(5) Sounds like “Fucking crazy”, sort of.
(6) Sounds like “Fuck!”
(7) Sounds like “harmony”, which is a reference to internet censorship. Since the government professes to do what it does for the sake of a “harmonious society”, Chinese netizens have been using “harmonized” as a verb to describe what happened to blocked websites for a while. The River Crab/Harmony pun goes back much further than the Grass Mud Horse pun.
It’s a vulgar song, to be sure, but barely noteworthy on the internet, that vast storehouse of vulgarity, were it not for the fact that it’s also a tongue-in-cheek jab at internet censorship (through the River Crab/Harmony pun explained above). What’s brilliant is that the message is so clear, yet technically, there aren’t even any obscenities in the song. Anyone hearing it would instantly recognize it for exactly what it is, yet it violates no laws because the message is conveyed entirely through puns. From the NY Times article:
To Chinese intellectuals, the songs’ message is clearly subversive, a lesson that citizens can flout authority even as they appear to follow the rules. “Its underlying tone is: I know you do not allow me to say certain things. See, I am completely cooperative, right?” the Beijing Film Academy professor and social critic Cui Weiping wrote in her own blog. “I am singing a cute children’s song — I am a grass-mud horse! Even though it is heard by the entire world, you can’t say I’ve broken the law.”
And indeed, this is just the latest indication that CCP censors face an almost insurmountable task in trying to “harmonize” the internet. It’s one thing to filter out sensitive search terms, but quite another to attempt to filter out clever puns and hidden meanings that, while clear to any human, are a bit beyond the capabilities of any computer filtering program. Of course, Chinese authorities could start filtering out “Grass Mud Horse” and “River Crab”, but they seem doomed to remain several steps behind the ingenuity of Chinese netizens.
Additionally, the Chinese language has so many homophones and near-homophones that censoring them all would be impossible. Were “Grass Mud Horse” censored, for example, netizens could pick from around 25 homophones for “grass”, over 60 homophones for “mud”, and around 30 for “horse”. Given that they would probably just need to change one character at a time, there are literally thousands of terms the censors would have to block — and that’s just to block homophones for one way to say “Fuck your mother”. Censoring “River Crab” would be even more problematic since River Crabs are, of course, real animals and there are plenty to legitimate reasons to discuss them online.
Chinayouren reported a while back on a blogger suggesting netizens start referring to Charter 08 as “Wang” to prevent censorship (the name Wang is the Chinese equivalent of Smith, and would be impossible to censor). It didn’t catch on, but it certainly could have, and that general approach to discussing “forbidden” topics seems to be catching on fast.
Increasingly, it appears the PRC may be forced to ease up on its ideological controls for fear of appearing irrelevant. Faced with the choice of claiming to control internet political content when such control is clearly impossible or painting themselves as the good guys by “granting” increased freedom of speech, they would certainly be better off taking the latter road. Whether they will, and how much they care about Grass Mud Horses, and the phenomenon they represent, remains to be seen.
Also of interest, in depressing economy news the job market has gotten so bad for college graduates that they are literally selling their free time as errand boys (or, in this case, girls).